Camp Camp

Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 117 minutes. Ali and Cole (Peyman Moaadi and Kristen Stewart).

SO MUCH OF CAMP X-RAY, writer-director Peter Sattler’s first feature, is so thuddingly didactic and yet morally obtuse that my writing anything else about the film beyond this sentence may be a further violation of the Geneva Convention. But as bad as this dubious project might be, the two performances at its center elevate it: Kristen Stewart as Cole, a soldier stationed as a guard at Guantánamo Bay, and Peyman Moaadi as Ali, the detainee she befriends. Both actors impressively shade impossible roles with alert nuances.

Before it descends into facile metaphors, Camp X-Ray begins with startling, astute clarity. As a newscaster narrates, in Arabic, the events of 9/11, with footage of the burning twin towers behind her, a man (whom we will later learn is Ali) begins to pray in his apartment. His salat is interrupted by blurry figures who approach him from behind and place a black hood over his head. This chaotic action is immediately followed by a shot of a trio of similarly shrouded men, who are also shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits and noise-canceling headphones, being transported by motorboat to the infamous US-military prison where they will be beaten and encaged.

The scathing critique of Guantánamo so forcefully laid out in these first few minutes is then inexorably undermined by Sattler’s outrageously flawed feel-good premise: that Cole and Ali have something to teach each other and, more broadly, are in equivalent situations. Even worse, Ali serves as the catalyst for his captor’s moral awakening; Cole’s time at the detention center might as well be the extended, east-Cuba stop for “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. “I wanted to do something important,” Cole tells Ali through the narrow, rectangular, thick glass pane of his cell, explaining why she enlisted in the army. “Yeah, I understand,” replies the man who’s been locked in a room no bigger than a veal-fattening pen for the past eight years, stripped of all liberties without ever being convicted of a crime.

And yet, even as Camp X-Ray builds to its preposterous final scene, Stewart and Moaadi remain fascinating to behold. This is the actress’s first role since the conclusion of the Twilight series in 2012; Moaadi has enjoyed international exposure on a much smaller scale, playing the irascible husband in Asghar Farhadi’s multiple-prize-winning Iranian marital drama A Separation (2011). Far removed from their earlier personae, both performers display a deep commitment not just to their shabbily sketched-out characters here but also to the push-pull dynamic between them. While Cole tries to make sure her flinty composure never drops during her patrol of D block, Ali—who, during one of their initial encounters, flings a cup of his shit at her—lures her in with his incessant questioning and haranguing. Throughout these cycles of repelling and attracting, and even during the more risible scenes, when the divisions between the two characters magically disintegrate, Stewart and Moaadi imbue each moment with agile reflexes: holding pauses just long enough, stiffening or relaxing postures to convey more about their characters’ backstories than Sattler’s prolix script ever does.

Camp X-Ray is now playing in New York; it opens in Los Angeles on October 24.